From Mokomokai to Modern day

A brief history in New Zealand embalming

From Mokomokai to Modern day A brief history in New Zealand embalming Among Maori 'Curios' collected by Captain Cook in 1770, was the first evidence of the Maori using a form embalming, a preserved Ngaitahu head. The first of many Mokomokai to be exchanged for muskets over the next Century by whalers, sealers and traders, who often negotiated for heads even before Maori had been killed. 

Far from what we would envision as embalming today the method used by Maori in preserving human heads was unique and extremely simple. 
First, the brain was extracted, the eyes removed and all orifices sealed with flax fibre and gum before the head was boiled or steamed in an oven. Then smoked over an open fire the Upoko (head) was finally dried in the sun for several days before being treated with shark oil, finely incised tattooing of the head being perfectly preserved, along with the likeness of the deceased. 

The preserved heads of relatives, were treated with tenderness and kept, sometimes in families for generations, being brought out, decorated and publicly displayed on all important tribal occasions-such as the tangi of a high chief or Ariki, or during inter-tribal of family meetings. 

It's believed that this custom continued as late as 1870, but as Maori and European cultures slowly intertwined from the mid 1800's to early 1900's European ''undertakes'' resorted to basic techniques of keeping the bodies on ice until the time of the burial. During this time Maori slowly adapted to and incorporated more European customs into their own culture this included embalming which became more popular in both cultures during and after the 1950's. 

Although time frames are unclear as to exactly when what we would call modern embalming came to our shores it was rear in New Zealand until the 1950's when undertakers started pushing for embalming for health and hygienic reasons, perhaps it was something they picked up off the Americans and the British during World War II it is unclear but by the 1970's it seems we caught the embalming bug, embalming over 70% of our dead and by the early 21st century it had risen to 80%. 

With many thousands of New Zealand family's still opting for embalming it shows that we have embraced this as a necessary and primary tool to help and aid in the transition from grieving reactions into mourning behaviors stimulated by ability to look, touch and most importantly spending just a little extra time with that person before saying our final farewells.